Saudi Arabia to lift Qatar embargo, open airspace and border

Step toward ending diplomatic crisis between US allies paves way for Qatari ruler to attend Saudi-hosted Gulf nations summit later this week

A giant image of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, adorns a tower in Doha, Qatar, May 5, 2018. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
A giant image of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, adorns a tower in Doha, Qatar, May 5, 2018. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Kuwait’s foreign ministry announced Monday that Saudi Arabia will open its air and land borders with Qatar in the first steps toward ending a diplomatic crisis that has deeply divided regional US allies since 2017.

The state-run Kuwait News Agency reported the announcement, saying that Saudi Arabia would open its borders with Qatar starting Monday evening.

Qatar’s only land border has been mostly closed since mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a blockade against the tiny Gulf state, accusing it of supporting Islamist groups in the region and of having warm ties with Iran. The border has opened just briefly during the past three years to allow Qataris into Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic hajj pilgrimage.

Kuwait has been mediating between Qatar and the four Arab states. On Monday, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad Al Sabah reportedly traveled to Qatar to deliver a message to Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia paves the way for Qatar’s ruler to attend a summit of Gulf leaders Tuesday that will be held in the kingdom’s desert city of Al-Ula. The summit would traditionally be chaired by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, though his son and heir, the crown prince, may instead lead the meeting.

Kuwait’s foreign minister said in a statement carried on state TV that the Kuwaiti emir had spoken with Qatar’s emir and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The conversations “emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification,” and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to “usher in a bright page of brotherly relations.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council summit will be “inclusive,” leading the states toward “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges of our region,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying in remarks carried by the Saudi state-run news agency.

The decision by the close US allies comes in the final days of the Trump administration’s time in office. Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in early December in a final attempt to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.

Kushner is set to attend the signing ceremony at the Gulf summit in Al-Ula following his shuttle diplomacy, a US official said Monday.

“We’ve had a breakthrough in the Gulf Cooperation Council rift,” the official said on condition of anonymity, confirming an announcement from Kuwait.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt “will be coming together to sign an agreement that will end the blockade and put an end to the Qatari lawsuits,” the official said.

Kushner previously contributed to the US-brokered recognition of Israel by four Arab states led by the United Arab Emirates.

The decision to end the Saudi blockade of Qatar also comes just ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing-in. Saudi Arabia may be seeking to clear contentious files that could prove stumbling blocs to building warm ties with the Biden administration, which is expected to take a firmer stance toward the kingdom’s policies than Trump’s four years in office.

There was no immediate comment by the UAE, Egypt or Bahrain on the announcement. However, in recent days Emirati and Egyptian statements have been made welcoming Saudi efforts to resolving the dispute.

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